Late last summer, an employee with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless was driving by a vacant lot near Union Boulevard and Sixth Avenue in Lakewood and noticed a large sign that declared “For Sale: Transit-Oriented Development.”
This was a shock, since the federal government, which owns the lot in question, near the Denver Federal Center, had already declared it hazardous and unsuitable for use by service providers for the homeless; CCH had actually looked into acquiring the property under a provision known as the McKinney-Vento Act that awards surplus federal land to states, local governments or nonprofits to assist people experiencing homelessness. This was the same provision that the nonprofit used in 1994 to obtain parcels of land in Lowry when the Lowry Air Force Base closed. But Housing and Urban Development had put its foot down regarding the Lakewood property when it determined it was unsafe, the explanation being that the lot had previously been used as a landfill and there were toxic chemicals in the soil.
“So our thought was: How can this be sold as market-rate, mixed-use development and not be suitable for the homeless?" recalls John Parvensky, president and CEO of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
After going through an appeals process and still being told no by the feds, CCH had its own experts debunk the toxic-chemical claims, then decided to go to court.
“We ended up having to go get a judge to rule that it was arbitrary and capricious that it could suitable for market-rate, mixed use and not suitable for the homeless," Parvensky says.
The nonprofit was successful. In August, a federal judge blocked the government's General Services Administration from selling the property, and late in September, HUD reversed its initial determination that the property was unsafe – admitting that the landfill had been capped. On January 23, CCH was granted use of the property to provide emergency and transitional services for homeless families and individuals.
The resulting project could be massive.
During phase one, CCH will erect dozens of temporary emergency structures – including FEMA trailers, geodesic domes and insulated tents – to house people experiencing homelessness in Lakewood. Then, pending zoning approval by the City of Lakewood, CCH plans to invest as much as $125 million during phase two to build five large buildings with 600 units and the ability to house upwards of 1,000 people.
Parvensky says that the approval of the project was a major win for CCH, though he's not entirely surprised that the feds were playing games with the property and trying to earn a buck rather than give away their surplus land. “If they sell the property, they get money and it goes the treasury. So there seems to be a bias toward selling the properties when they're surplus rather than actually making it available for [the homeless],” he points out.
The other thing that Parvensky wasn't entirely surprised by was the NIMBYism of some Lakewood residents when they learned the property would be used to house formerly homeless people. At a community meeting in early February, Parvensky himself was shouted at by some residents with fears about how the project would affect neighborhood safety.
“And there's this idea that we're going to send all of Denver's homeless to Lakewood. People have said it will become a tent city," Parvensky says. "We ran into similar things when we proposed acquiring the property out at Lowry, and through a lot of community meetings were able to tamp down some of those concerns and respond to them. I think we have built a reputation in terms of building quality housing and operating it in a way that doesn't reduce property values. But you can almost bet that when people hear that the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless is building something, the first thing they think about is that we're going to build a shelter and have all these problems. Generally once we get a project completed, all of those concerns are laid to rest and people go on with life as if it never happened."
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Parvensky also says that, traditionally, the reason Denver has so many people experiencing homelessness is because suburbs like Lakewood don't have adequate services, so they migrate into the city. His own organization serves 1,800 people in Denver who listed their last permanent address as being in Lakewood. "So if we could serve them in Lakewood, they wouldn't have to come to Denver for services," he says. "There's a need everywhere, and if we're able to spread out and meet that need in different communities, I think we're all better off.”
The next step is getting approval from Lakewood to build the permanent structures, a conversation that is sure to have at least some opponents and more NIMBY arguments.
“In the interim, we need to move forward with what we're allowed to do,” Parvensky says. “And that will at least meet the immediate needs of people who are calling the streets of Lakewood their home tonight."
UPDATE, March 6: The city of Lakewood reached out to Westword after this story with some concerns about Parvensky's quotes about zoning approval. The city has prepared this fact sheet, which says that Lakewood's approval for CCH to build permanent structures is not necessary if the land stays federally-owned and is leased to CCH by the feds.